Andy Dalton and the Bengals hope to get a step closer to a second straight AFC North title with a win over the Broncos
Week 16 of the NFL season concludes with a battle of AFC division leaders as the Denver Broncos are set to take on the Cincinnati Bengals on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” The Broncos (11-3) have already clinched their fourth straight AFC West title and could secure a first-round bye with a victory tonight. The Bengals (9-4-1) are trying to hold off the Steelers (10-5) for the AFC North crown, but more importantly a win would guarantee a fourth straight playoff berth.
Denver has won four in a row behind a rejuvenated running game and Peyton Manning is 8-0 in his career against Cincinnati. The Bengals have won four out of five (all on the road), but haven’t fared too well in primetime this season. Cincinnati got blasted by New England 43-17 on Sunday night in Week 5 and was embarrassed 24-3 by Cleveland at home on Thursday night in Week 10.
Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Denver -3.5
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Denver’s Key to Victory: Don’t Forget About Peyton
The Broncos have won four in a row and they have done it in a somewhat unusual way. Instead of riding Peyton Manning’s right arm, Denver has been content with punishing teams on the ground. The Broncos have 659 yards rushing and nearly as many rushing touchdowns (five) as passing (seven) over the past four games. C.J. Anderson has been a revelation, but the grind may be getting to him as he’s averaged 2.9 yards per carry over the last two games. Meanwhile, Manning has seen his attempts and completions drop in each of the past five games. Whether it’s injury-related (has been dealing with a thigh issue) or there’s more to the reports of diminished arm strength with the weather turning colder, Denver has relied less on its future Hall of Fame signal-caller lately. However, tonight may be a perfect opportunity to change things up, considering Manning is 8-0 in his career against Cincinnati with a 20:5 TD-to-INT ratio and a passer rating of 106.8. The Bengals are 11th in the NFL in passing defense, but they will have their hands full against Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and the rest of Denver’s pass-catchers. The running game has worked recently, but the Broncos have enjoyed a fair amount of success through the air too. Perhaps tonight they should take a page out of their old playbook?
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Cincinnati’s Key to Victory: Is Andy Dalton Ready for Primetime?
The Bengals have leaned on Jeremy Hill recently, and the second-round pick out of LSU has responded. In the last five games alone, Hill has rushed for 473 yards on 91 carries with three touchdowns. For the season, he’s averaging five yards per carry and has shown that he can handle a heavy workload (18.2 carries per game during this span). However, Denver’s defense has really clamped down on the run this season. The Broncos are second only to the Lions in rushing defense, giving up 71.6 yards per game. Only one rusher (Tre Mason) has gone over 100 yards on the ground against them and they have allowed just 67 yards per game over the last four contests. With Hill’s seemingly tough matchup, Cincinnati will need Andy Dalton to make more plays through the air to try and loosen up Denver’s defense. Unfortunately, Dalton has not played his best when he’s been in the national spotlight. His playoff struggles (0-3, 1 TD, 6 INTs) have been well documented, but he’s also just 2-6 in his career in primetime (Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights) games. When the stadium lights are on, Dalton’s production goes down – 53.6 percent completion rate, 199.1 yards passing per game and as many interceptions (8) as total touchdowns (7 pass, 1 rush). The Bengals are on doorstep of their fourth consecutive playoff berth, a first for this franchise, but for this team to have any success in January, Dalton needs to play better when the stakes are highest. What better practice than tonight against one of AFC’s top teams?
Denver has already punched its playoff ticket and now is just playing for a bye and home-field advantage. Cincinnati can get in with a win tonight, which would certainly take some pressure off prior to Sunday’s division-deciding finale in Pittsburgh. The Bengals have won four of their last five because of their defense and a bruising running game, but they had all sorts of issues against the Steelers, an offensive team in the mold of the Broncos, and are matched up against one of the NFL’s stingiest rushing defenses tonight. Peyton Manning has been rather ordinary lately, but he’s still a future Hall of Famer while Andy Dalton has not held up well in primetime settings. Denver sticks to its recent script (running the ball, playing tough defense) with a few deviations courtesy of No. 18, as the Broncos wrap up a first-round bye, setting the stage for a massive Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh showdown Sunday in the Steel City.